Today, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to place additional limitations on the use of three organophosphate pesticides — chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion — to protect endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
The announcement comes in response to a series of lawsuits brought by Earthjustice aimed at removing toxic pesticides from salmon spawning streams throughout the northwest.
In response to Earthjustice litigation, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in November of 2008 released a "biological opinion" that set forth a plan for protecting Pacific salmon and steelhead from three toxic organophosphate pesticides. That decision came after almost a decade of legal wrangling between salmon advocates led by Earthjustice and the federal government. The biological opinion prescribed measures necessary to keep these pesticides out of water and to protect salmon populations in Washington, Oregon, California, and Idaho. The announcement from EPA today moves this work forward.
Although the experts at NMFS recommended prohibiting aerial applications of the three pesticides within 1,000 feet of salmon waters and ground applications within 500 feet of salmon waters, EPA has taken a different course. EPA believes it can achieve the same protections for salmon with buffers ranging from 100 to 1,000 feet depending on pesticide application rate and stream size. In their announcement today, EPA says it will require industry to fund and carry out monitoring of salmon streams in order to assure the pesticide restrictions work as intended.
"EPA's decision is a major step toward protecting our salmon stocks and revitalizing the fishing industry, which can generate hundreds of millions of dollars in the region," said Joshua Osborne-Klein, an attorney for Earthjustice, the environmental law firm that represented the salmon advocates. "But we're concerned that EPA's alternative won't be enough to keep these poisons out of salmon waters, and we urge the wildlife experts at NMFS to closely review EPA's plan."
The three pesticides at issue in the biological opinion are known to contaminate rivers and streams throughout California and the Pacific Northwest and poison salmon and steelhead (see background below).
"Our goal is to rebuild the healthy salmon stocks native to the Pacific Northwest," said Osborne-Klein, of Earthjustice. "Getting agricultural poisons out of salmon spawning streams is one of many needed actions to see the salmon stocks rebuilt."
In addition to jeopardizing salmon, these pesticides pose serious risks to public health – especially the health of young children. A number of recent studies have linked prenatal exposure to organophosphate insecticides with behavioral problems including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. A 2006 study published in Pediatrics, compared the risks of chlorpyrifos to prenatal cocaine exposure.
In 2002, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, and other salmon advocates, with legal representation from Earthjustice, obtained a federal court order declaring that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to consult with NMFS on the impacts that certain pesticides have on salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest and California. As a result of that lawsuit, EPA began consultations, but NMFS never issued biological opinions or identified the measures needed to protect salmon and steelhead from the pesticides. In 2007, the salmon advocates filed a second lawsuit and entered into a settlement agreement with NMFS that establishes a schedule for issuing the required biological opinions.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined that accepted uses of chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion are likely to jeopardize the continued existence of 27 species of endangered or threatened salmon and steelhead. NMFS found that current uses were likely reducing the number of salmon returning to spawn. These three pesticides are all organophosphates (a class of neurotoxic chemicals). They are used in both agricultural and/or urban insect control. Recent research has found that in combination the effect of organophosphate mixtures is greater than the effect of each of the chemicals' effects when added together. These chemicals are often found together.
• Contaminates rivers throughout the west at levels harmful to fish or their food sources according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The basins where chlorpyrifos was detected at harmful levels include the Willamette, San Joaquin, Tulare, and the Central Columbia Basin.
• Is "very highly toxic" to fish according to U.S. EPA's toxicity classification system.
• Impairs fish reproduction by reducing egg production in fish.
• Inhibits juvenile coho salmon feeding behavior and swimming speed.
• Harms the survival and reproduction of salmon food sources.
• Contaminates rivers throughout the west at levels harmful to fish or their food sources according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The basins where diazinon was detected at harmful levels include the Willamette, San Joaquin, Tulare, the Central Columbia Basin and Puget Sound. It was also detected in King County, Washington streams.
• Impairs feeding, predator avoidance, spawning, homing and migration capabilities by impeding salmon sense of smell.
• Leads to weakened swimming activity in juvenile trout.
• Is acutely toxic to salmon food sources.
• Contaminates rivers throughout the west at levels harmful to fish or their food sources according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The basins where malathion was detected at harmful levels include the Willamette, San Joaquin, Tulare, and the Central Columbia Basin. It was also detected in King County, Washington streams.
• Leads to weakened swimming activity in juvenile trout.